"When he (Lawrence Bishnoi) came on the TV, I felt my son died for the second time," Balkaur Singh, father of slain singer Sidhu Moose Wala said, referring two interviews given by Bishnoi recent from inside jail.
Gangster Lawrence Bishnoi is the alleged mastermind of Sidhu Moose Wala's assassination on 29 May 2022.
"It (Bishnoi's TV interview) was like mafia and gangsters had entered my home," he added.
Balkaur Singh isn't alone in his anger. Since the interview, Bishnoi has emerged as the object of a great deal of outrage in Punjab. This outrage goes beyond Moose Wala's family members and fans and it has assumed a different angle following the crackdown on Amritpal Singh and his organisation Waris Punjab De.
In this piece we will try and look at why Lawrence Bishnoi has emerged as a hated figure in Punjab after his interviews as well as the crackdown on Amritpal Singh.
The Timing of Lawrence Bishnoi's Interview
Conducted by anchor Jagwinder Patial, the interviews of Lawrence Bishnoi were telecast on ABP News in two parts - 14 and 17 March. The first interview is about an hour long and the second is around half an hour. Both interviews seem to have been conducted at different points of time.
The second part was on the eve of Sidhu Moose Wala's Barsi ceremony in Mansa on 18 March, which also happened to be the day when the Punjab Police and central agencies launched a crackdown on Amritpal Singh and Waris Punjab De.
For many of Moose Wala's admirers, the alleged mastermind behind his assassination being given a free platform to put forward his views, was nothing less than an insult.
The fact that he had access to a smartphone and high speed internet in his jail cell, also sent the message that he isn't really facing any consequences for his alleged crime despite being in jail.
Senior Punjab-based journalist Gurshamshir Singh Warraich says that many people see this as a "humiliation".
"This man is accused of killing Sidhu Moose Wala, who had a cult following in Punjab and beyond. People looked up to Moose Wala, they are inspired by his story and his songs. Seeing his alleged killer being given a free platform to improve his image is like a humiliation for them."Gurshamshir Singh Warraich, senior journalist
The Contrast With the Crackdown on Amritpal Singh
In the context of the crackdown on Amritpal Singh and Waris Punjab De, many people are pointing out a contrast.
On one hand, mobile internet and even SMS services were suspended for the entire state for a few days and the public was put through inconvenience for no fault of theirs. On the other hand, a notorious gangster like Bishnoi had access to a phone and high speed internet in jail from where he could freely give interviews over video call. Though the interview was conducted before the internet ban, it was fresh in people's memory.
Another contrast is being cited. Amritpal Singh's associates, some of whom don't even have any prior criminal antecedents, were taken to a jail in Assam's Dibrugarh for security reasons.
On the other hand, Bishnoi is the head of a criminal syndicate, accused of plotting murders from jail. Yet there are no attempts to shift him to a place with higher security despite allegations that he is enjoying facilities and running his criminal empire from jails in Punjab and Rajasthan.
After Bishnoi's interview was telecast, the Punjab Police maintained that they have the highest security protocols in jails. Yet despite these protocols, they somehow felt the need to send Amritpal's associates to Assam.
The Lapse - Who is to Blame?
Of course, it is not clear who is to blame for the interview(s) - authorities in Punjab or Rajasthan?
Both police forces have denied that the interview(s) took place in their respective states.
The Rajasthan police had taken Lawrence Bishnoi to Jaipur on 15 February and he was brought back on 7 March.
As he mentions killings that took place in Goindwal Sahib jail on 26 February in his interview, it clearly means that it was conducted after that. But he was in Rajasthan for a week after that incident so it still doesn't rule out that the interview took place there.
Congress MLA Rana Gurjeet Singh has alleged that the second interview took place in Bathinda since Lawrence was wearing the same clothes as shown in a photo shared by Punjab Police from Bathinda central jail.
In that interview, Bishnoi also refers to Punjab as 'yahaan' or here.
But even if the Congress' allegation is true, due to Bishnoi's presence in Rajasthan from 15 February to 7 March, one still can't rule out that the first interview took place there.
The Narrative - Lawrence Bishnoi as a Hindu Nationalist?
Besides the lapse on part of jail authorities and the timing of the interview before Sidhu Moose Wala's Barsi, the other disturbing aspect was the narrative that Bishnoi was creating.
During the interview, Bishnoi kept trying to present himself as a 'nationalist' and a 'devout Hindu' and accused Sidhu Moose Wala of being unpatriotic.
"I am against Pakistan and I am against Khalistan but did (Moose Wala) he ever speak against Pakistan? Did he speak out for our soldiers?" Bishnoi said in the interview.
Of course, Moose Wala's father gave a strong response to Bishnoi saying, "I have been a soldier for much of my life, serving in places like Kargil and the China Border. I want to ask - am I a patriot or is Lawrence Bishnoi a patriot?"
Bishnoi also sported a Tilak in one of the interviews and emphasised on how he keeps chanting Hanuman Chalisa and wants to start a Gaushala.
Throughout both the interviews, Bishnoi projects that he has two villains in his life - Sidhu Moose Wala and actor Salman Khan. Now, it probably goes with the Hindu nationalist image that both of Bishnoi's 'villains' are icons in their own fields and belong to minority communities.
Gurshamshir Warraich says this is part of an attempt to polarise.
"Justification of the murder of a renowned Sikh Singer, an open threat to kill a famous Muslim actor...the entire exercise seems to be aimed at giving the gangster an image makeover and to push the agenda of polarisation in Punjab and beyond."Gurshamshir Warraich, senior journalist
It does seem that Bishnoi wants to gain a fan following in his own community and among people of a particular ideological hue. He also wants to project himself as some kind of patriotic gangster, the way Chhota Rajan did in the 1990s.
The Quint has already reported on how Sidhu Moose Wala's killing came at a time when Bishnoi and crime syndicate was establishing its dominance in north India and how his rivals have suffered much more due to police encounters than his gang.
Due to his impunity, his role in not just allegedly killing Moose Wala but also now ideologically targeting him in the interview, Lawrence Bishnoi has become an active agent of polarisation and instability in Punjab.
The longer the inaction against him and the officials who may be facilitating him - whether in Punjab, Rajasthan or at the Centre - the deeper the resentment will become in Punjab.